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Magazine preview: 'The Devil is Here in These Hills' book review

In the next issue of the Teamster Magazine, Eric Arnesen, the James R. Hoffa Teamsters Professor in Modern American History at The George Washington University, has another fascinating book review.

Below is the full version of Arnesen’s review of James Green’s “The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom.” (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015)

The current assault on workers’ rights is the latest chapter in a long and ugly history. In that history, the battles that raged across southern West Virginia in the early 20th century stand out as among the most vicious labor conflicts in the American past. Operators in the nonunion coalfields resolved to keep their mines union-free, employing an arsenal of weapons, some legal, others extra-legal, to maintain the upper hand. The results were brutal. Appalachian coal country, one writer observed, was “an American heart of darkness.”

It is this world that historian James Green vividly and movingly recreates in his compelling new book, “The Devil is Here in These Hills.” West Virginia miners’ list of grievances was long and depressing. Many lived in company towns, where owners’ complete control made a mockery of democratic rights. Wages were low. Working conditions were horrific, with accidents—mine fires, explosions, and collapses—regularly taking the lives of hundreds of men and boys. (The state’s mine safety laws were “the weakest in the nation.”) Efforts to challenge the industrial order were met by brute force, as armed guards, professional strikebreakers and the state government violently repressed efforts at resistance.

Those conditions and miners’ determination to challenge them turned the region into virtual a war zone. Time and again, company guards, Baldwin-Felts detectives, vigilantes and state militiamen occupied communities and broke strikes; blacklists and yellow-dog contracts routed out—temporarily—union organizers. Declarations of martial law empowered military officials to arrest and hold hundreds of trade unionists without charge. During a “mine war” in 1920, military officials barred the circulation of the state’s labor newspaper and police arrested anyone caught reading it. “The big advantage of this martial law is that if there’s an agitator around you can just stick him in jail and keep him there,” explained one government official. “Justice is dead, freedom is a thing of the past, and liberty is but a dream of the future,” a local labor journalist concluded.

But the book is “more than a litany of strikes and lockouts, evictions and blacklists, gun battles and armed marches—more than another gruesome chapter in the history of American violence,” Green argues. “It is, above all, the story of a people’s fight to exercise freedom of speech and freedom of association in workplaces where the rights of property owners had reigned supreme.” He recounts the efforts of countless men and women to contest the mine owners’ reign of terror. Their challenges—including the march of some 10,000 armed miners amounting to what Green calls the “largest civil insurrection the country had experienced since the Civil War”—proved no match for the power of the mine operators and their allies in state government.

Until, that is, the coming of the Great Depression and the arrival of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. A changed political environment—one that was far less anti-labor than the one that preceded it—allowed a revitalized United Mine Workers of America (UMW) to achieve in 1934 what it had failed to do for the preceding three decades: Organize West Virginia’s miners, win union recognition and engage in collective bargaining with coal operators. As the result of the UMW’s success, wages rose; working hours fell; safety improved; and the reign of armed company guards came to an end. The “Bill of Rights finally had real meaning to the people who lived and worked in the coal country of West Virginia,” Green concludes. Their “long march toward freedom” finally bore fruit.

Although historians have long been familiar with aspects of West Virginia’s sorry past, “knowledge of this enduring conflict has been all but lost to American memory,” Green observes. His dramatic book effectively addresses that problem. He hopes that a revived memory of these struggles will serve as a “potent resource for contemporary movements to save Appalachia, its people, and its natural wonders from the forces that have been wreaking havoc in the region for more than a century.”

What West Virginia’s miners “could not have understood at the time was that their struggle would broaden and deepen the meaning of freedom in all of industrial America,” Green tells us. In the current anti-labor climate, the lessons Green recounts are well worth remembering.